Thursday, 30 September 2010

Gordon Bennett

Balloonists in the the Gordon Bennett cup, the world's oldest, simplest and slowest air race, launched from near Bristol, late on Saturday night. Started in 1906, the rules are simple: take off from a fixed point and fly as far as you can on one fill of hydrogen - the winner being the balloon that travels the furthest.

This year, the winners, a Swiss team - SWI2 - made up of Kurt Frieden and Pascal Witpraechtiger, landed near Constanta, Romania, having travelled 1,513 miles (2,435km). However, a balloon piloted by Americans Richard Abruzzo and Carol Rymer Davis, went missing in thunderstorms over the Adriatic. The search continues.

Twenty teams, from 11 countries, competed this year, the first time that the Coupe Aeronautique Gordon Bennett has taken off from the UK. Where they eventually landed can be seen here. Described by the organisers as "the oldest and most prestigious aeronautical race in the world", it has always generated interesting news stories, such as the following report from the Observer, October 18 1908.

As to who was the original Gordon Bennett, see here and here.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Conquistadors of the Useless

While rummaging around in the Guardian/Observer digital archive the other day, I came across an obituary for the French mountaineer and guide, Lionel Terray. It's 45 years this week since he died while climbing in the Dauphine Alps. Terray made the second ascent of the Eiger north wall in 1947 with Louis Lachenal, and then returned to take part in a dramatic rescue on the same mountain in 1957. As well as being part of the 1950 French Himalayan expedition to Annapurna, he climbed Makalu, Nilgiri and many other summits.

The alpinist, regarded as one of the finest climbers of his time, also wrote Conquistadors of the Useless, his much acclaimed autobiography in 1963. Here he defined his love of mountains as
"This mass of grandeur and mystery...this world of ice and rock where there is nothing to be plucked but weariness and danger."

In a review of the book for the Guardian, Patrick Monkhouse (a climber, and a writer/editor on the paper for some 30 years who features in the Guardian Book of Mountains), while praising the content, thought the title "irony overstrained". Perhaps, but four decades on the and the phrase regularly crops up in mountainering essays and articles. In fact, I'd say that it's up there as one of the greatest titles for climbing/adventure books.

Monday, 20 September 2010

On the Proper Use of Stars

Another day, another Franklin story. The latest news is that TV adventurer Bear Grylls claims to have found human bones, the remnants of huge fires built from ship timber, and tools carved from whale bone, which may help to explain the fate Sir John Franlin, his 129 men and their two ships. Grylls and his crew made the discovery while on a mission to enter the record books as the first team to navigate the treacherous Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean in inflatable boats. More details here.

Meanwhile, On the Proper Use of Stars, a novel about Franklin's doomed expedition has just been published. An English translation of Quebec writer Dominique Fortier's Du bon usage des etoiles (2008), it focuses on Francis Crozier, Franklin's second-in-command who turns a sceptic eye on the ambitions of his leader.

Life moves on and Grylls has just tweeted "off to start filming new Degree deodorant commercials today".

Friday, 17 September 2010

127 Hours

127 Hours, a new film about Aron Ralston, the young adventurer who had to amputate his arm with a multi-tool, has been garnering positive reviews. Some of the scenes are said to be so realistic and explicit that three filmgoers fainted when it was it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival (although of course this could well have been a publicity stunt.)

Directed by Danny Boyle, the film, based on Ralston's Between a Rock and a Hard Place, tells the story of how a fallen boulder crashes on his arm and traps him in an isolated canyon in Utah. Over the next five days he comes to the conclusion that the only way to escape is break the bone and cut through the tendons of his right arm. There's a short trailer here but also take a look at this film of Ralston describing the amputation.

Obviously the build-up to the severing of the arm forms the central part the book but Ralston has a few other tales to tell. For example, early on in his outdoor career a solo climbing trip to the Grand Teton National Park turned into a nightmare cat and mouse game with a hungry bear. Soon after establishing camp he realised that a young bear had been following him so, being an experienced backwoodsman, he strapped his food bag high up in a tree. The bear though just ripped it down. Ralston realised that he if he didn't get the supplies back he could well run into trouble thus he went looking for the thief, found it, and while waving a large stick, shouted "give me my food back, bear". Surprisingly, it dropped the bag. However, the animal later got its revenge by trashing the camp while Ralston was off climbing. It then followed him for 24 hours - Ralston would throw stones at the bear, it would go away, and then re-appear. He finally reached the safety the safety of his car,

I'd completely forgotten this story until a friend reminded me - whilst trying to scare a bear (left) away from our camp at Porcupine Flat, near Tuolumne Meadows. Panic reigned in the campsite for an hour or so, especially after the animal went up to someone's table and began to eat everything in sight. It gave just a small insight into the fear Ralston must have felt whilst coping with the bear on his own.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Georgy Brusilov

The fate of Russian adventurer Georgy Brusilov, whose legendary Arctic expedition vanished in 1912, has been revealed. Explorers discovered his camp complete with skeletons and the perfectly-preserved pages of the sailor's log on Franz Josef Land, Europe's northernmost land mass, in July. Brusilov was trying to forge a route through the ice-choked North-east passage, the elusive Arctic trade route from Asia to the West. Midway into the journey along the Siberian coast, Svyataya Anna, the expedition ship, ran aground on thick ice floes.

The 24-member crew clung to the doomed ship for two winters as it floated ever closer to the North Pole. In the Spring of 1914 a 14 man team left to sledge south to Franz Josef Land. Of those who left the ship, only two survived, one of whom was the navigator Valerian Albanov, who later described the ordeal in The Land of White Death. These formed the basis for Soviet author Veniamin Kaverin's novel Two Captains. More detail about the 2010 can be found here.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Millican Dalton

Harry Griffin, the journalist and climber who died in 2004 is usually remembered for his Lakeland Country Diary columns that appeared in the Guardian for over fifty years. However, he was also part of a small band of 1930s rock-climbers who helped revive the sport after the First World War. This week's Footless Crow republishes a 1975 piece by the man himself in which he recalls half a century of climbing in the English Lake District.

It's a fascinating read but what caught my eye was a sentence about Millican Dalton, the self-styled Professor of Adventure. Griffin writes: "There were no professional guides in the Lake District 50 years ago, apart from kindly old Millican Dalton, the Borrowdale hermit, who would take you up the Needle, make you a tent or rucksack, or cook you a meal in his cave." The man also featured in a Country Diary from September 14 1984:

Another description of the famous cave dweller can be found in the 1992 obituary of climber Paul Orkney-Work, in which he is quoted as saying, "(Dalton) made his own clothes and equipment and never washed. My mother broke off the engagement eventually. She said that he had a rather strong goaty aroma. But he took no offence and when she married my father he made them a tent for their honeymoon, in the gipsy style, with hoops rather than poles"

Read more about this amazing character in Millican Dalton: A search for Romance & Freedom.

There are a number of Griffin articles in the Guardian Book of Mountains, but his work also appears inDouble Measures. Here he writes about Lanty Slee, a notorius bootlegger and yet another cave dweller. Hidden underground in a quarry area near the Langdale valley the sometime farmer produced illicit whisky that was said to be the best for miles around.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Sir John Franklin

It was reported in July that a ship lost while searching for missing explorer Sir John Franklin in the Arctic over 150 years ago had been found by Canadian archaeologists. The HMS Investigator, sent by London in 1850 to try to locate Franklin and his crew, was located in 11 metres of water at Banks Island, in the west of the Arctic archipelago.

Franklin and his entire crew were lost after setting sail for Northern Canada in 1845 during a fruitless attempt to find the Northwest Passage, a trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific through the Arctic Ocean. As an aside, a series of eight sketches of the voyage of HMS Investigator, reviewed in The Observer, appeared in 1854.

(Observer, August 13 1854)

The most recent news about Franklin is that a box containing documents linked to his doomed expedition has just been dug up in Gjoa Haven in the Canadian Northwest Territories. The exact contents of the unopened, sand-filled container will not be known for about three weeks. However, the view from Russell Potter's informative and reliable Visions of the North blog is that it will most likely contain records of Roald Amundsen, who was known to have left several caches in the area.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

John Muir: Stone Sermons

Travel writer Jan Morris once observed that "there can be few places of comparable grandeur so ghastly to visit as the Yosemite Valley on a holiday." She (then James) was writing in 1956 but on a recent visit to the Valley I did begin to wonder what I was doing there. There were queues for everything - from finding a parking space, getting a pizza, viewing waterfalls, showers, to the pleasure of renting a dusty patch of ground to put up my tent.

Of course nothing detracts from the supreme beauty of the place and once established in your campsite/lodge/hotel you can begin to relax and really appreciate the place. In fact, as I soon discovered, step off the main roads and it surprising how relaxed things begin to feel, while break away from the established trails and you'll soon be on your own. And then of course there is always the option heading up one of the the rock faces. Gain a bit of height, then look out over the tall, ancient trees, framed by the vast granite walls, and you can imagine what it was like when people first started exploring this wilderness in the 19th century (obviously Native Americans had been living in Yosemite for centuries.)

The most famous of these new visitors was John Muir, who, as every self-respecting environmentalist knows, was the Scottish-born American naturalist who was largely responsible for the establishment of Yosemite as a National Park as well the preservation of other wilderness ares. He has an almost god-like status in the park with his picture everywhere. In fact the great bearded one spent a relatively small amount of time in the park, mainly between the years 1868 and 1874. During this period he signed up as a shepherd to take a flock of 2,000 sheep to Tuolumne Meadows in the High Sierra, an adventure he recounted in one of his most exciting books, My First Summer in the Sierra, (published much later on in his life.)

Muir may have been looking after sheep but he explored as much of the landscape as possible. His diary shows that he was obsessed with Cathedral Peak, a spectacular 10,911-foot weathered granite horn above Tuolumne Meadows. The following entry appeared on August 9 1869:

"From every point of view it shows marked individuality. It is a majestic temple of one stone, hewn from the living rock, and adorned with spires and pinnacles in regular cathedral style ...(he hoped to climb to it) to say my prayers and hear the stone sermons."

Later that year he finally made an unroped ascent of the peak armed with nothing but a notebook tied to his belt and a few lumps of hard break in his coat pockets. One has to marvel at Muir's daring and adventurous spirit and some say this excursion kicked off Yosemite's climbing era. Equipped with rather more gear, a friend and I did a route on the mountain, last month. We had the rock to ourselves (bar a bare-chested hotshot who soloed past muttering something about English beer) and if I didn't quite hear Muir's 'stone sermons' amidst the spires, the view from the top of the final pinnacle is stupendous enough to bring out feelings about a higher being in even the most hardened atheist.

Or, as Peter Croft, author of The Good, The Great and The Awesome, puts it:

"The view from the top is pretty as punch and less than two hours away is the Meadows Store. Soon you'll be accosting strangers in the parking lot. "Excuse me, sir", you'll say, popsickle in one hand as you jerk the thumb of the other hand over your shoulder , "in case you're interested, I just climbed that MOUNTAIN!"

To take the ecclesiastical theme one step further, Climbing Great Buildings, a new BBC series, includes climbs up great structures such as World Heritage site, Durham Cathedral.

(Cathedral Peak pictures: Tim Wilkinson)